Tuesday, November 09, 2010

setting expectations

There is one thought on this past week’s parsha from Rav Hirsch that I think everybody, even those of us who don’t know anything else Rav Hirsch had to say on chumash, knows. I saw it quoted by two different yeshivos (neither of them attended by my kids) in their newsletters. Google “Hirsch” and “Eisav” or “Ya’akov” and you will find the idea on dozens of other websites and parsha sheets.

Here’s a synopsis: Since Ya’akov and Eisav were twins, they were treated alike and given identical educations. What could be more fair than that? Why would Eisav have any cause for complaint or rebelliousness? But, says Rav Hirsch, this type of fairness was exactly the problem. Eisav and Ya’akov had very different temperaments and personalities. Eisav was not cut out for the yosheiv ohalim type education Ya’akov thrived in. Had he been offered education and opportunity that was more in line with his own needs and talents, perhaps he would not have deviated from tradition.

In other words (perhaps not the words intended by Rav Hirsch), dear parents, if your child wanders from the reservation, you know whose fault it is? -- Yours. Had you only been more sensitive to your child’s needs and wants, more cognizant of his or her individual talents, you might have tailored his/her education accordingly and avoided rebellion. Just read any of the advice to parents of at-risk youth (and what youth are not considered at risk these days?) and you will get the same message: Show tolerance. Don’t demand that your children be something that they are not. Don’t pressure (the ultimate evil) kids.

I am going to commit the heresy of bucking the trend. My reaction: Bunk.

OK, I should temper that a bit, but like the Rambam says, the only way to cure an extreme is to emphasize the exact opposite. The world that is trying to shove down our throats the message that feel good tolerance is the palliative for all educational ills. Loosen the reins, lower the standards, exert less pressure, and everything will be A-OK. When a Rabbi or Rebbe is walking in the park on Shabbos and he sees students dressed in sweatpants and T-shirts playing ball, he greets them with a big smile, a high-five, a big Good Shabbos, because if chas v’shalom that a Rav or Rebbe should actually tell kids that what they are doing is wrong – that Shabbos is not field day – that kid might be turned off. And I’m taking an example that’s minor and the least of it – you can come up with your own examples without my help.

This fear of the turn-off has led not to educational expectations targeted to the level of the child, which is what I think Hirsch intended, but rather to the abandonment of all expectations -- don’t tell anyone that what they are doing is wrong, tolerate everything. The results are obvious and predictable -- kids who grow up knowing no more about Judaism than they did in first grade, but who see their Rabbi smile at them and give them a big Good Shabbos because they are at least in an orthodox shul and not at the country club playing golf.

So here’s my plea to restore what I call in my home the big R word – Responsibility. Rebellion is not always a parents’ fault – a teenager can and should be held accountable for his/her behaviors, for his/her choices. Chanoch la'na'ar al pi darko -- set expectations appropriate to the age and level of the child, but don't give up on setting expectations. Kids need to be taught that we as parents, we as a society, have rules that go along with rights, and part of growing up is accepting the challenge of meeting them. Sometimes kids and adults fall short – but learning how to cope with setbacks and try harder, not lowering the bar, is usually the best medicine.

There is certainly a need for Hirsch’s message. In certain segments of the Orthodox world there is enormous pressure to be yosehiv ohalim even when one is clearly not cut out for it. No everyone is Ya'akov Avinu. But sadly, and maybe I missed it, I don’t think these yeshivos advertised this vort of Rav Hirsch in their weekly parsha sheet. Davka in the places where there is no pressure to be among the yosheiv ohalim, where the Shabbos baseball game and much more is already tolerated, is the message of tolerance and more tolerance emphasized again and again.

All I'm saying is that a little balance would be better in both cases.


  1. Steven2:08 PM

    Your message of balance is a good one. It may also be supported by the fact that the same story of Yaakov and Esav raised together as twins, yet growing up to head in very different directions, spurs the comment in Midrash Rabba that a father can/should therefore say "baruch sheptarani" when his kids grow up. In other words, you give it your best in chinuch and in setting the right example, but ultimately the grown child will make their own moral decisions and will be fully responsible for them.

    This midrash is a well-known source for saying baruch sheptarani at bar mitzvah. I don't think the midrash is simply stating a law, "you are chayav to say this beracha when your child becomes a gadol." Rather, I think it is a deeper insight reflecting on yitchak and rivka having raised ya'akov and esav, and concluding that a parent can/must do their best to provide chinuch but ultimately the grown child is responsible for their own decisions.

  2. I like your pshat in the Midrash.

  3. Another R that is key is resilience, the power to bounce back when things don't go as planned.

  4. Certainly Rav Hirsch would not approve of the culture of low expectations, which is a far cry from chucking standards (educational, behavioral, etc) in the name of "self-esteem" or what have you. One can certainly put a child on an appropriate educational path without letting go of the reigns and accepting everything a kid throws in the path of the parent and educators.

  5. Bob Miller1:45 PM

    An upbringing tailored to the child should normally help, but there are also cases such as Esav's where he could have turned out as he did regardless.

  6. Anonymous10:11 PM

    OK 1st off the example is a bit inaccurate. I'll give a similar examle: If a teacher sees a student dressed intzinusly, but yet still says "Good Shabbos", is that wrong? Should they then start giving mussar to the student? In my esteemed opinion- No. There's a time and place for everything.
    Also a 2nd point is that teens need guidance, and the sad truth is that many teens are lacking greatly in the "R" word. So it is partially the parents fault, and partially the kid's fault. If a child strays from the path, it is your duty to direct them, and attempt to understand them. Ever hear a parent say "when I was a kid..."-Many parents also accept their children to be exactly like they were in their childhood, and well every person is different and that's the bottom line.